What is Animism? Ask the “Sorry Rocks”
What’s called animism must no longer be considered a fringe attitude of “primitive” people. It’s more common than you think.
Last summer, I walked along a familiar beach with a good friend, and I mentioned that my spiritual path has led me to animism. “I think I’ve always been an animist. I just didn’t know it.”
“What’s that?” She asked. We were approaching the stone breakwater just ahead. These massive rocks were piled up long ago to keep the ocean from eroding the beach. “You and I are people, right?” I said. “That rock? It’s also a person.”
Perhaps because my friend is a poet, she took me seriously. But…
…is my path just some New Age weirdness? Actually, animism is ancient. If you go back far enough, 99% of your ancestors — and mine — were animists. It doesn’t matter if like mine, yours came from Northern Europe — or were Native American, earth-honoring folk whom one might expect to have had a dialogical relationship with eagles, plants — and rocks. Early animists didn’t have a name for it. It was simply life as they experienced it. The term came from 19th Century anthropologist Edward Tylor. He identified animism as a central error of ALL religions. He contended that even his own era’s Victorian Christianity contained a fossilized remnant of a primitive belief in “souls or spirits…entities that are beyond empirical study.” Religion itself was a slightly embarrassing invention doomed to disappear in the face of objective scientific facts. Apparently, in the long arc of history, only he and his contemporaries were enlightened enough to see this ‘truth.’
What Animism Is
Pagan scholar Graham Harvey writes: “Animists are people who recognize that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others.”
In short, animism is more about relationships with the elements of the world than it is about belief. It can be framed as belief, sure. But believing that a particular mountain has personhood means nothing if you stripmine it, reducing it to a barren waste. Human-to-human genocide depends on dehumanizing the “other” — once you convince yourself that an entire group is subhuman, you become “justified” in murdering them. Laws are very slowly coming into being to establish personhood for rivers and lakes, precisely to keep them from being further abused. That these laws are controversial is proof that deep in the human heart is the understanding that a person is someone who must be treated with respect, if not listened to.
Animism only exists in relationship. Back to my friend and me on the beach: I’ve walked there hundreds of times since I was a child. I’ve climbed on the breakwater, played on it, scrambled up and down it countless times without incident, without giving them a second thought. Actually, I’ve had a relationship with those rocks all my life — by ignoring them.
This time, as we stepped up on the stones to continue down the beach, I stumbled. For the first time ever. Earlier that summer, I’d felt especially surefooted climbing over the same stones. I wasn’t hurt, but my friend was startled and tried to grab me. We kept going down the beach, but I wondered about what had just happened.
I tell my friend that a particular rock is a person, then I climb onto it and stumble. I subsequently forgot the incident. Then, on my next walk down the beach, this time alone, I stumbled again on the same rocks.
This is how I understand it: Rocks are one feature of the natural world that most humans have virtually no hesitation about abusing. Only if they are supporting something we deem precious — the roots of an ancient tree, perhaps — do we care what happens to them. Of the many, many people who cross that breakwater every year, who stops to say, Thank you? Does anyone ask the stones for permission to cross?
Apparently, by upending me just a little, the rocks were saying, “Sheesh. About time someone paid attention.” If I were a rock, I’d be a little pissed off, too.
I learned to ask the stones for permission to cross. Sometimes, I got an internal No, at which I turned back. Sometimes I got a Yes. Often, I wasn’t sure, because as a baby animist without a solid cultural tradition supporting me, I’m learning how to relate to other-than-human persons. I did my best, was respectful, and I stopped stumbling on the rocks.
Walking alone on the beach became less lonely. I was surrounded by kin — only some of whom had two legs (and no wings). It’s delightful to say Hello to seagulls and terns. I don’t expect them to high-five me, but the felt sense of kinship is nurturing.
I’m not the only human with a fraught relationship to rocks. Every year, especially since Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in Australia was returned to the Anangu people in 1985, the folks who run the park report that approximately one rock per day is mailed back by guilty tourists who’d taken a rock as souvenir. So many have been returned that special provisions are taken to avoid introducing foreign pathogens into the park, not to mention the question of accuracy — some returned rocks were actually picked up elsewhere and mistakenly returned to the park. Other parks report the same phenomenon, including Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii. Why so many returns? If a rock is an inert if interesting collection of molecules, as Edward Tylor would argue, why bother returning them at all?
The animist answer is probably similar to one those tourists would give: It’s about a desire to be in right relationship with the land, and with those whose ancestors tended it for the ages before modernity... It’s not hard to conclude that we modern, Western humans may be more animist than we realize.
Animism is about relational ethics rather than agreed-on beliefs. Animists of different stripes hold different beliefs about the sentience of, say, rocks. I don’t expect people to agree with me; but just about everyone has an opinion about the weather. And if you have an opinion about something, you have a relationship to it.